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Oklahoma's open government laws are rarely enforced, expert says

Advocates for open government complain district attorneys and public officials don't take the state's openness laws seriously.
BY BRYAN DEAN bdean@opubco.com Published: March 14, 2011
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Oklahoma law requires public officials to conduct business in the open, but sometimes a law isn't enough.

Open government advocates complain enforcement of the law is nonexistent through much of the state, depriving citizens of their right to see how their state and local officials are making decisions and spending taxpayer money.

Open government is in the public eye because of Sunshine Week, a national effort to promote open government.

Although violating Oklahoma's openness laws is a misdemeanor punishable by fine of up to $500 and a year in jail, district attorneys rarely, if ever, file criminal charges in such cases, said Joey Senat, an Oklahoma State University journalism professor and expert in open government law.

There is no statewide authority to enforce the law.

“Technically, the attorney general's office is not the enforcer of open records or open meetings laws,” said Diane Clay, spokeswoman for Attorney General Scott Pruitt.

That leaves little recourse for those who can't afford a long and costly court battle, Senat said.

“By and large, district attorneys are reluctant to prosecute their fellow elected officials and their law enforcement colleagues,” Senat said.

In one recent case, a citizen complained when Lone Grove City Council members suspended a city manager without listing the action on the meeting agenda as required by the law.

Carter County District Attorney Craig Ladd recused himself from the case, which was then passed to Bryan County District Attorney Emily Redman. Redman declined to file charges.

In a letter explaining her decision, Redman excused the city council members from criminal wrongdoing partly because she could not find evidence they went into the meeting with the intent to violate the law and because they conducted their actions with the advice of the city attorney.

However, Oklahoma courts have said neither of those reasons is good enough to excuse officials from criminal liability. Much like motorists are expected to know the speed limit, public officials are required to know the law.

A willful violation requires only a blatant violation, not bad faith, according to previous court opinions.

Redman said in an e-mail that she takes the state's openness laws “very seriously,” but did not address the apparent conflicts between her letter and previous court opinions.

“The facts in this case as presented simply do not rise to the level of a crime,” Redman said.

Addressing violations

Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association, said prosecutors will often try to address a violation without filing criminal charges, either by sending a warning or asking officials to apologize when they make a mistake.

“It generally has to be an extreme abuse of power for the district attorney or law enforcement to arrest and prosecute a public official, even though it is a criminal act,” Thomas said. “Generally, they slap them on the wrist, tell them not to do it again, and hope they don't.”

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AT A GLANCE

Sunshine Week is a national effort to promote understanding and appreciation of open government and freedom of information. Created by journalists, the effort is about the public's right to know what its government is doing and why. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public's right to know.

Public corruption is just as much a threat to our country as drug use.”

Joey Senat

Oklahoma State University

journalism professor

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